I think we learned something today.
We learned the Vancouver Whitecaps are legit. That seems like an odd thing to say after a 1-0 loss, of course, but it's true. The Philadelphia Union played well, earned their three points before the raucous crowd at their home opener, and generally looked very impressive. But the Whitecaps, though bruised, depleted, and eventually a man down, played tough. Apart from one unlucky deflected shot off of Greg Janicki, they would have emerged with a 0-0 draw. As it was they lost a game we all expected them to lose, they looked fine, and we found ourselves with just a little more hope.
Sure, beating the everloving snot out of Toronto FC at home is fantastic. But it's in these sorts of games that you discover what a team's made of: tough road fixtures against teams competing for playoff spots when you're missing huge chunks of your starting eleven. We discovered that the Whitecaps, depth-wise, aren't going to make the playoffs. But we also discovered that this team has plenty of effort, a non-zero amount of talent, the ability to hang tough when overwhelmed, and a few weaknesses that stand out all the more for the fact that they can be fixed.
We also learned, of course, that Eric Hassli's temper is going to get him in trouble someday. We learned that Atiba Harris can't get it done (but that's not news). We learned that Major League Soccer referees stink (not a major revelation either). We learned that this team has some bad habits which might cause them trouble against the Los Angeles Galaxy. We learned there's work to do, no doubt.
Still, I take more good from this game than bad. It wasn't ninety entirely positive minutes for Vancouver. But I'm calling it a moral victory, if not an actual one.
In the first half, the Whitecaps came out gangbusters. It was tremendous to watch: the Whitecaps and the Union traded chances up and down the field in a game elevated by physical play and ruined by referee Yader Reyes, a veteran of Major League Soccer (which sounds like a euphemism for "crappy referee", doesn't it?). Reyes had trouble controlling the game and tried to make up for it by handing out yellow cards erratically and blowing the whistle with little consistency, which of course just frustrates players and makes the game worse.
The Whitecaps got a little too frustrated and did themselves no favours. I don't think there's any doubt that the Philadelphia Union players embellished a little in the two tackles which saw Eric Hassli receive yellow cards. But there's also no doubt Hassli, a big, aggressive guy, made contact with those players in a situation when he had no reason to. Heck, in the first minutes of the game Hassli slid in on a Union defender with both feet just to try and turn a Philadelphia goal kick into a Philadelphia throw-in. He spent his entire game playing right on the edge and he wound up getting burned: given that Hassli knew full well what sort of game Reyes was calling, he frankly should have known better. Now the Whitecaps will be without the services of their designated player and most potent weapon up front for next week's game.
It's doubly concerning given that the Whitecaps got another mediocre performance from Atiba Harris. When Hassli was on the field, Harris was an amoeba, shuffling back and forth, back and forth, occasionally going offside, never even threatening to break open Philadelphia's defense or make them pay for keying on Hassli so intently. As soon as Hassli was out, Harris was all alone up front and didn't do anything. When he did get the ball in the area, he pretty much just tried to run straight through Philadelphia's defense rather than move it productively. He was poor. Camilo Sanvezzo wasn't great when he came on, but at least he was active and prevented the Union defense from advancing the ball at their leisure. With Sanvezzo we at least had the hope that the Whitecaps might generate something; with Harris we had the hope that the ball would bounce off his face into the goal.
You could tell where the Whitecaps were missing players. Jay Nolly's injury didn't wind up mattering at all: Joe Cannon was terrific. But Davide Chiumiento's creativity in midfield was desperately missed. Russell Teibert played excellently until he left the game just past the hour mark to keep in shape for the Canadian U-20 team: he had some great work as ever off set pieces and in open play, and had Hassli or Harris gotten on the end of one of his lobbed balls this game might have been a very different story. Nizar Khalfan, though, looked like he'd gotten up early to watch the Tanzania - Central African Republic game and was quite poor. When Wes Knight came in as a substitute for Teibert and Khalfan moved to the left-hand side, the Whitecaps suddenly started attacking down the right: the difference between Nizar Khalfan and Wes Knight was enough to open up the field for them. On the other hand, the left-hand side completely shut down.
In defense, there were moments of unsteadiness. The goal by Carlos Ruiz was partially bad luck: a shot deflected off Greg Janicki right to Sebastien Le Toux who had Ruiz in alone with him and nobody but Joe Cannon in the way of the goal. But it was also poor positioning as Alain Rochat had drifted out of position, Blake Wagner had drifted way out of position, and none of the defenders were playing the "anchor" role which Jay DeMerit played so well in the second half against Toronto. The back four mostly acquitted themselves better than I thought they would, but they were by no means good.
The main mistake our defense made was falling too easily into the long ball. Was it panic? I'm not sure, but the longer the game went the less inclined they were to play it through the midfield. Gershon Koffie and Terry Dunfield, offensively, weren't given much of a chance to shine. Blake Wagner and Jonathan Leathers (the surprisingly good Jonathan Leathers!) tried to work with the wings sometimes, but Rochat and Janicki just hoofed and hoped. This left the Whitecaps' two best remaining playmakers isolated and with not much to do, and that didn't help the Whitecaps' chances of getting back into the game. Late, with about five minutes left, the defense actually showed more patience and all of a sudden the Whitecaps started to attack Union territory again. I hope there's a lesson learned.
It was a loss, and our dream of an undefeated season is dead. Oh, well. As long as the Whitecaps learn what they had to from this well-earned defeat, it won't be in vain.
Game Ball: It was hard to decide this for certain, but in the end it goes to Joe Cannon. The old man made a couple dandy saves and was constantly active, trying to cut out crosses or beat Philadelphia strikers to the ball. Without him it could have been 2-0 very easily. Russell Teibert and Jonathan Leathers also received consideration.
Most Disappointing: I can't really call Atiba Harris disappointing, since I expected nothing from him and he delivered just that. So instead I nominate Alain Rochat. With the Whitecaps defense missing Michael Boxall and Jay DeMerit, Rochat was expected to hold down the fort. Instead, he was somewhat sloppy and struggled with his positioning. While Rochat was by no means at fault for the loss, he was a liability rather than an asset. This also could have gone to the sadly erratic Nizar Khalfan.
Next Up: the Whitecaps return to Empire Field next Saturday to host some piece-of-shit American striker and Sporting Kansas City. Kickoff is at 4 PM.